I was blasting Pandora a few months ago on the Sammy Kershaw channel, and a song from his unreleased album came on. “Better Than I Used To Be” is a song about a fuck-up drug addict who is getting sober, and telling a woman he loves that he knows he is capable of being a piece of shit, but he wants to get better and needs her help. It’s not a great song, it’s too short, and they hit the chorus way to early in the second verse, but it caught my ear immediately because it felt different than any recent country song. The song itself was flawed, but the singer wasn’t. You actually felt for Sammy Kershaw, because Sammy Kershaw actually was a fuck-up drug addict piece of shit; and you could tell just by his voice that the lyrics were personal.
He had been playing in roadhouses to support his family since his dad died at age 11, which was also the age he started boozing heavily, and he didn’t stop for 20 years. Sammy Kershaw is a man who knows where the bottom of his barrel is, and has hung out there for a decade or so, taking in the scenery. Sammy was became a man so beaten by his demons and personal failings that he gave up singing, and the celebrities life of women, drugs, and money, to work at Wal-Mart so he could get himself clean.
A few weeks later, I hear Tim McGraw singing Samuel’s song on the radio, and the song went from ok to garbage the second Timmy opened his mouth. Not to shit on Tim, who I kind of like, but this isn’t a song for him. Tim McGraw isn’t a man who has ever burnt his life to the ground. Tim has a gorgeous wife that has never left him, his dad was a pro ball player who helped kick start his career, and he clearly doesn’t have the self destructive urges Sammy does; as evidenced by the fact that Tim McGraw never quit a successful music career to work at Wal-Mart because he was incapable of saying no to whiskey and eight balls of cocaine.
That’s fine though. It’s not criticizing Tim to say he’s got his shit together, but why the hell is Tim McGraw singing Sammy’s song?
I don’t want to hear Mr. Perfect sing about flaws he doesn’t have, I want to hear the drug addict sing about what a loser he is. Tim needs to sing high concept arty songs, like Elton John or David Bowie; songs that deal with growing up, or travelling in space, or what Faith Hill’s vagina looks/feels like. Tim McGraw does not need to sing about the pain and suffering of self destruction.
Seriously, did I miss something, or am I just getting old and cranky? When the shit did country music become songs about perfect families, and loving your spouse and kids? Country music is heartache, and is supposed to be about ruining your life with drinking, or philandering, or pills. At its core, country is about having something good, and then destroying it because your weak.
What the hell happened?
Capitalism happened, I reckon. The same thing that happened with Metal in the 80′s, Grunge in the 90′s, and is currently happening with Rap. In order to sell more records to a broader audience, record companies issue a product as bland as possible. In order to generate more hits, Nashville has singers tell the audience what they want to hear.
That their marriage is great, and neither they nor their partner, ever think of straying.
That they love living in a generic, isolated small towns, and being racist is ok.
That Jesus is real, and hears all their prayers about sick people.
Rednecks, these singers aren’t identifying with you, they are mocking you. Someone rich who abuses drugs and sleeps with a lot of nasty women and doesn’t believe in god realized the formula for country music mass appeal. In whatever single you release mention your high school girl, your small town, and how you like to drink beer.
Add a crowd singing along the words to the chorus at the end, and that’s it; you’ve got an instant top 40 hit.
What in the hell happened here? Where did the personal issues go? Where is the pain? I don’t want a sanitized version of life, I want the ugliness. I want Hank crying because his girl is a whore, and he is so fucking depressed he’s about to drink himself to death. I want Willie Nelson singing haunting songs apologizing to the girl he loved for not being able to control his dick. I want Merle Haggard threatening to kick hippies in their stupid, goat bearded faces for disrespecting America.
I want the edge back. I want the grit back. I want the badass back.
There are no popular bad asses in country now, just posers. Why pretend to be something you’re not? I don’t listen to NWA to hear about the joys of interior decorating, and I sure as fuck don’t listen to country to hear a boyband preen on about how tough they are.
Look at this! Just look:
Here are three country singers with coiffed, perfectly styled, bleached hair doing a photo shoot where they still can’t resist the urge to be intimate with each other. The three were obviously dressed by a transgender fashionista, best evidenced by the immaculate, floral themed Versace button up of the lead singer. All three appear to be wearing numerous items of jewelry, and the one in the middle appears to be attempting to execute a sweep kick. This group’s latest song is a heinous attempt to mix country and rap, giving birth to a song about how no one better mess with their gang.
Compare this to another song about another gang, ‘The Highwaymen’, when Willie Nelson sings about being a robber who murders men, and then ravishes their women; Kris Kristofferson sings about being a pirate pilfering the high seas; Waylon Jennings is so badass he decides to drown in some concrete; and Johnny Cash comes out of fucking left field and becomes a space ship captain.
That is a gang.
That’s a bunch of creative nutjobs who got together and did a shitload of drugs and booze and women, and then released a classic album. What that is, is a group comprised of artist rebels, who made their music the way that they wanted, when they wanted, and how they wanted. What it is not, is a bunch of effete queens wearing lace, holding hands and prancing about on stage singing about how silly their gang is.
I know nothing more that speaks to the sad state of affairs than the fact that Toby Keith is considered an outlaw in the industry. This isn’t a knock on Toby, who I also think is talented. But he isn’t an outlaw. He likes to drink and have sex; so does everyone. He doesn’t want to settle down. Who does?
Being a (slightly less sanitized) human doesn’t make you an outlaw.
An outlaw is an artist who makes his or her music the way they want, and are often self destructive and out of control. Johnny Cash gave a live concert to the inmates of one of the most dangerous prisons on Earth. George Jones drove a lawnmower down a major highway to get to a bar after his wife hid his car keys because he was a raging alcoholic. David Allen Coe killed a man in prison, belonged to a 1%er bike club, and when the IRS repossessed his home for not paying taxes he LIVED IN A CAVE while he got his career back on track.
Those men are outlaws. They are a gang of rednecks who worked oil rigs, did prison time, experienced the dust bowl, mingled with biker gangs, and got in bar fights with brass knuckles, and chains and then they wrote songs about these experiences.
Some vagabonds still tend the flame. Hank Williams III has several excellent songs about abusing and shipping large quantities of narcotics, shooting guns, and having sex with sheriff’s wives, but he has no real national fan base. Popular groups like Zack Brown mention smoking weed in one of their songs, and Miranda Lambert sang about guns and cigarettes, so they kind of count… kind of, but where’s the songs about shooting jukeboxes, riding bulls, and Mexican cattle thieves?
I am not an impossible man to please, nor am I heartless to people who love songs about loving their families. I like soft served pop ice cream as much as the next gay man, but let’s not completely forget the painful origins, and honest heritage of one of the most American forms of music so that we can feel better about our lives, let’s not forsake the joys of hearing people drown their sorrows in whiskey and moonshine for people who pretend to have no sorrows.